Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Muhammet Uzunur, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel
Synopsis: A group of men set out in search of a dead body in the Anatolian steppes.
The thing about movies like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is that they’re so deliberately enigmatic that it’s possible for any number of meanings to be derived from the obscure fashion in which the story is told. The story in this movie is secondary to the study of the characters of a handful of policemen and officials engaged on a rambling journey across the inhospitable Anatolian steppes in search of the burial place of a murder victim. We accompany these men — a police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan), prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) — as they follow the hazy directions of the self-confessed killer, who is struggling to remember just where he and his retarded brother buried their victim.
A number of conversations take place amongst these men. Some are mundane, and some are more meaningful, and all provide clues to the unspoken personal concerns that each man hides. These naturalised conversations tap into those of ordinary people in the same way that a writer like Tarantino does. Ceylan’s characters are more likely to discuss the merits of buffalo yoghurt than talk about the case they they’re working on. But where a maverick like Tarantino exaggerates and embroiders the dialogue of his conversations, Ceylan minimalises them, pares them down to the bare bones so that very often trying to draw meaning from his character’s words is like trying to get a drink out of a stone. A movie like this is a jigsaw puzzle, and like any jigsaw puzzle, it requires all the pieces to be in place if it is to provide us with a complete picture, and at the end of the day you’re kind of left wondering whether what Ceylan has to say on the human — or, more accurately — the male condition, is profound enough to justify sitting through 157 minutes of lingering shots of the back of someone’s head, meaningful stares into camera and prolonged — but symbolically loaded — silences.
Make no mistake about it, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is beautiful to look at — especially the night scenes in which rippling fields of golden wheat are captured in cars’ headlights – but that beauty only holds our attention for so long. As far as movie reviewers go, I’m in the minority. Browsing through a good dozen or more reviews I found only one that was negative. And yet many of the positive ones were strangely alike in the way they heaped praise upon the movie without feeling it necessary to go into any real detail about what made it so great. Generalisations were rife. I haven’t met many people who’ve seen Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but none of those whom I have were as fulsome in their praise as the reviewers. Too long, they said; too slow; too impenetrable. Too obscure.